Sheila Jasanoff on Science, Technology and Society

August 4, 2009
by Molly Lanzarotta

How social, political, and cultural values affect scientific research and technological innovation, and how these in turn affect society, politics, and culture have become crucial areas of interdisciplinary study in recent decades. Sheila Jasanoffis Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies and Director of the Program on Science, Technology and Society at Harvard Kennedy School.
Q. Why is it important to examine issues and controversies around science and technology in their social context, and why are these studies important at a school of public policy?
Jasanoff:I sometimes ask my students to do a thought experiment. I ask them, “Can you think of a single area of public policy where science and technology are not important?” And sometimes they’ll think and they won’t come up with anything. Sometimes they’ll say, “Well, religion and First Amendment, those don’t have anything to do with science.” And then I’ll remind them that creationism, evolution and public education are some of the most controversial areas of discussion in relation to religion and public policy. So that’s just a way of illustrating that in the 21st century it’s very difficult to go through any area of public policy without encountering a few gates that say “science and technology” along the way.
Q. Describe your approach to interdisciplinarity, and what is unique about the way it relates to public policy.
Jasanoff:One of the glories of the Kennedy School is that it is an interdisciplinary center because public policy is an interdisciplinary undertaking. The way I myself think about interdisciplinarity has been formed from my long experience of dealing with topics that stand between different disciplines. I’ve helped develop a field called science and technology studies which is the contemporary study of science and technology. We take methods from fields like anthropology, history, sociology and philosophy and combine them into something that’s really quite distinctive. So I think it relates to the Kennedy School’s interdisciplinarity in a couple of ways.
First of all, by being interdisciplinary it fits the mission of public policy schools in general, and this one in particular.
Second: I think that a lot of the interesting questions that we need to ask about our world will not be asked if you approach issues from the standpoint of any single discipline. So many of the things we want to know about science and technology today could not be approached from any single discipline. So, by creating an interdisciplinary space around science and technology, I think that we are floating new questions, questions that are relevant to public policy.
Lastly, I think that methodologically there are criss-crossings, combinations of qualitative and quantitative methods – or using archives but also using interviews – lots of different ways in which the methods of my field are creating synergies and syntheses that are based in the idea of interdisciplinarity and that wouldn’t happen at all naturally if you just put several disciplines side by side and told them to go forward with their own methods.
Q. There is a school of thought that sees a destructive cultural divide between the sciences and politics that obstructs progress in addressing some of society’s most crucial challenges. How serious an issue is this, and what are some of the bridges across this perceived cultural divide?
Jasanoff:People assume that there’s this very rigid divide between what counts as science and what counts as politics. Once you start looking at the interface of science and technology and public policy, you recognize the extent to which the two absolutely have to depend on one another. The important science that’s being done for policy purposes today comes out of our having decided as a society that there are important issues on which science and politics should collaborate.
So, for instance, the focus on climate change – something that is very important and at the top of the policy agenda today – climate change didn’t come from the sciences acting by themselves, it came from governments worrying about the economic and policy consequences of the weather patterns changing all over the world. It came from ordinary citizens worrying about what was going to happen to their houses or their livelihoods. And of course it also came from scientists deciding that if they pooled their data in certain ways, they could see a new problem emerging that no one had seen before, called climate change. It’s not a problem for marine biology or ecology alone, but all these sciences together. So those are areas in which to then go back and say, “well, this is politics and that is science” really doesn’t serve anybody’s interests.
Something that I’ve been urging for a long time is that we think instead about legitimacy, and that we think about legitimacy whether it’s in the sciences or whether it’s in politics. We’ve gone through political eras in our time, in this country, where we’ve simply dropped our concern for legitimacy, and as a result we’ve had both bad science and bad politics. I think we have to find shared common ground among intellectual areas, whether those are how you govern a country responsibly, or how you make knowledge responsibly. Once you put words like responsibility, accountability, legitimacy in the middle of the table, I think you start building those bridges that you’re talking about, and that’s where I like to situate my own research and my teaching as well.
Q. Please describe some of the issue areas where your research has been particularly applicable.
Jasanoff:One area where I’ve done close to 30 years of work is in the area of science advice. Increasingly, the elected officials and the people they appoint to various posts don’t have any way of acquiring the technical information they need in order to make sensible decisions, decisions that are going to benefit the public welfare, the global welfare, really.
So science advice has become an extraordinarily important part of governing. I wrote a book about this subject years ago called “The Fifth Branch” because in that book I was dealing with an advisory branch of government that people hadn’t really noticed as being so significant before. We talk about the three branches of the government – executive, legislative, and judicial – and for a long time we’ve talked about the administrative agencies as being a fourth branch – and then my fifth branch was these advisory bodies.
This idea has had a certain amount of influence, partly because it helped put the idea of regulatory science out there into the public debate. People recognize today that there is a sort of branch of knowledge creation called regulatory science, that the rules of legitimacy for that branch of science are different from what you would craft at the bench if you were doing more basic research.
Other areas where my work has been quite relevant include biotechnology policy – so, for instance, in trying to understand why other countries approach the regulation of stem cells and embryos in very different ways. One of my more interesting activities was trying to persuade the World Trade Organization that its interpretation of treaty law governing the export and import of genetically modified crops needed to be adjusted. We actually, with a lot of difficulty, succeeded in putting a friend of the court (amicus curiae) brief before the WTO. It didn’t visibly move the WTO; they didn’t instantly say, “Oh yes, as these academics have told us, we should change our ways.” But I think in a more subtle way, we’ve begun to see that they are shifting their opinion about how to interpret the science of risk assessment when it comes to products that are moving across national boundaries.
Q. Any final thoughts on these topics?
Jasanoff:All of the questions that you’ve been asking are nested in a lifetime of work, trying to understand how science and technology themselves operate as social institutions. I think that this work is especially relevant for a policy school because, to do public policy well, we not only want to understand how to use evidence, and what is good evidence, and how to think about options – all of this is very important – but we really need a detailed understanding of the very institutions that are making policy. So what does a court function like, how does a judge relate to the law clerks, how do people choose expert witnesses? In that same way, I think that policy makers need to have a clearer understanding of how science and technology themselves operate as social institutions.
It’s one thing just to say “science.” But science as done in a corporate research lab, or science as done by a testing company that’s providing a lot of data to the Food and Drug Administration, for instance, is very different from what you would find if you went into one of Harvard’s basic research labs. People work differently, and under different constraints.
The same goes for technology, engineering, and medicine. What I’ve been trying to do with both my research and my teaching is to communicate this overarching sense that our policy making would improve if we built into it a much more detailed, much more thorough-going, micro-level understanding of what the institutions of science and technology are all about, and how they relate to the myriad other governmental institutions whose operations we’re interested in studying and influencing.

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